July 25, 2024
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Open Orthodoxy and the Orthodox Rebirth of the Conservative Movement

A tremendous amount of literature has been penned about the Open Orthodox movement, depicting its hair-raising deviations from normative Orthodox practice, ranging from Open Orthodox rabbis lobbying for gay marriage, to Open Orthodox synagogues promoting partnership minyanim (prayer groups in which women lead parts of the service), to a vanguard Open Orthodox institution ordaining women rabbis, to the founders of Open Orthodoxy advocating for the right to non-halachic conversions in Eretz Yisrael, to Open Orthodox interdenominational and interfaith initiatives that violate widely accepted and precedent halachic rulings, to Open Orthodox rabbis espousing heresy of the highest order.1

While the last aforementioned item—the embrace of heresy by Open Orthodoxy rabbis—would appear to be one of the many consequences of a movement that has made the reform of Orthodox Judaism its focus, reshaping Orthodoxy to fit a liberal, egalitarian vision, the tragic truth is that outright heresy is at the very core of the intellectual engine that powers the Open Orthodox movement.

In a May 22, 2014 Facebook posting, R. Ysoscher Katz, chairman of the Department of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the Open Orthodox rabbinical schools, demonstrated his belief that Torah She-b’al Peh, the Oral Law of the Talmud, is not Mi-Sinai/Divinely-given. Posting on Facebook, Katz writes:

“I just finished teaching a year-long class on masechet Sotah, one of the most difficult tractates in the Talmud. Simply read, the Biblical procedure seems capricious and patriarchal. The rabbis drastically reinterpret the process to make it sensitive and egalitarian. They were the progressives of their times, and, relative to their milieu, they were quite radical.

“As I was wrapping up the class I realized how lucky chazal were that they were writing about two thousand years ago. If they would have been writing today, a Chareidi essayist might have dubbed them radical feminists, a MO essayist might have called them resha’aim, and a MO blogger might have ‘warned’ people not to be photographed with them. (And, who knows, they might have even gotten a Mir Rosh Yeshiva upset enough to call for their murder.)

“In other words: our tradition was always about progressive change, radical conservatism is actually a deviation of our historical norm.”

Katz asserts his belief in the insensitive and bigoted presentation of the halachos of Sotah as featured in the Written Torah, and his view that Chazal fabricated or reshaped the Biblical Sotah procedure into the version presented in the Talmud, in order to reform the Sotah procedure toward an egalitarian vision. This denial of the objective Mi-Sinai authorship and character of Torah She-b’al Peh, portraying the Oral Law as something concocted or manipulated by Chazal to serve a social agenda, is highly problematic, to put it lightly. See Rambam Hil. Teshuva 3:8, Kesef Mishneh ibid., par. 1 of introduction to Mishneh Torah, and par. 4 of Rambam’s introduction to Peirush Ha-Mishnayos.

Shortly after issuing his remarks about the authorship and agenda behind the halachos of Sotah, Katz spent Shabbos as the scholar-in-residence at the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue, where he delivered the d’var Torah at morning services and spoke several times about the Sotah issue, including an address entitled, “Are Rabbis Proto-Feminists? A Critical Reading of Tractate Sotah.”2

Although the notion of a high-ranked Talmud lecturer in a yeshiva’s semicha program spending Shabbos at a non-Orthodox congregation is baffling, it is a testament to the theological posture of Open Orthodox leadership.

Many of us are familiar with the words of R. Dov Linzer, rosh yeshiva and dean of YCT, in an article3 about perceived inequities in the Talmud toward gentiles. Linzer wrote that although some Talmudic opinions can be read to grant gentiles more favorable standing in the limited area of the article’s discussion, “the halakha follows the interpretation that the Gemara gives to the statements of the Tana’im and Amora’im. Nevertheless, many committed Jews are often left feeling that even when halakhic solutions are being found, they run counter to the ethos of the system, and are to some degree disingenuous and lacking in integrity…Should we be bending the halakha to conform to our modern notions of egalitarianism? [That] is a reasonable question to ask and a hard one to answer. An honest answer requires finding within the Talmud those voices that articulate those same values that are driving us.”

Linzer’s statement that “‘Should we be bending the halakha to conform to our modern notions of egalitarianism?’ is a reasonable question to ask and a hard one to answer” is shocking and speaks for itself.

Linzer has taken the theme of challenging Torah authority several steps further. In a similar vein to the Katz approach, Linzer writes regarding the mitzvah of Mechiyas Amalek/Obliterating Amalek:

“We have taken the mitzvah to destroy Amalek, a mitzvah that disrupts our moral and religious order, a mitzvah that embraces violence and, through interpretation, through choosing how we will tell the story, we have transformed it into a mitzvah of memory, a mandate to restore moral order and to repudiate violence…”4

Linzer presents the Torah’s command about Amalek as vicious and repulsive to our sensitivities,5 explaining that we reformed the general mitzvah, in line with the (otherwise) deeper sensitivity of the Torah, into a mitzvah of symbolism and passivity. Linzer both offends the Torah’s articulation of Mitzvas Mechiyas Amalek and posits that Torah authorities contrived a different manifestation of the mitzvah, departing from the Torah’s command in favor of a more civil approach.6

Linzer shared more about his approach to halachic authority in remarks delivered at the recent YCT smicha ceremony:

“Not long ago I lost a dear friend, Rivka Haut, z”l (co-founder of Women of the Wall, and outspoken orthodox feminist-AG), a woman who was my conscience in so many ways. Rivka attended my Daf Yomi, and would never fail to challenge me when we encountered a morally problematic passage in the Talmud. I remember one day when I was attempting to defend or explain away a certain passage. She said to me, ‘It is not your job to defend the Talmud. The Talmud says what it says. It is your job to take responsibility for how it is taught, if it is taught as unquestionable, God-given truth, or if it is taught with an acknowledgment of its problems and challenges.’

“This is what it means to take the Torah out of heaven and bring it to the earth. This is the Torah that we must teach and represent.”

For a rosh yeshiva to concur that the Oral Law, the Talmud, should not be presented as “unquestionable, God-given truth,” but rather as a text featuring problems and challenges, such that it must be taught and applied in a way that accommodates and is palatable, is quite troubling.7 Hilchos Teshuva 3:8 and the other aforementioned sources come to mind once again.

In a recent interview, R. Asher Lopatin, president of YCT, affirmed commitment to classical belief in Torah Mi-Sinai, yet declined to address the unacceptability of any theological views or approaches to halacha: In sharp contrast to Agudah, and to rulings by YU-affiliated rabbis, Rabbi Lopatin doesn’t see the need for sharp lines to distinguish kosher belief from heresy. Nor is he fazed by the prospect of a slippery slope.

Take the question of women in Jewish law. Could women ever be treated simply as equal to men in halacha—leading services and being counted in a minyan? Rabbi Lopatin doesn’t want to preclude anything as being out of bounds.

The basic principles of his Orthodoxy, he said, are belief in the Torah and the authority of talmudic sages. Beyond that, he is willing to enter halachic debates with an open mind.8

Lopatin also seeks to reintroduce into Orthodoxy discussion of views and positions that had been banished from mainstream Modern Orthodoxy decades ago and were basically relegated to non-Orthodox classification: Rabbi Lopatin has put aside the term “open Orthodoxy,” coined by Rabbi Weiss, in favor of the older “Modern Orthodoxy.”

“We’re about reclaiming Modern Orthodoxy,” he said.

“There was a rich modern Orthodox environment and culture that is coming back,” he continued, citing debates waged more than 40 years ago in the pages of YU’s student newspaper between Rabbis Yitz Greenberg and Aharon Lichtenstein, at the time both YU faculty members, and at the convention of the Rabbinical Council of America between Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Emanuel Rackman.

“Arguments are good. Let’s argue about it,” he said.9

The notion that Torah is not the absolute and objective Divine Truth has found its way into other segments of the Open Orthodox community. R. David Almog, an early YCT graduate, has come up with an experiential view of faith that enables one to be Torah-observant even if one does not accept that Mattan Torah ever occurred.10 R. Herzl Hefter, posting on the Open Orthodox website Morethodoxy,11 has posited that the Torah was not dictated by God to Moshe, but that Moshe intuited the words of Torah in his heart; once again, the event of Mattan Torah is denied.12

The pattern of blatant challenges to halacha and tradition endemic to Open Orthodoxy can in large measure be traced to the faith ideology of the movement’s intellectual leadership; rejection of the fundamentals of halachic authorship and Torah authority has given license to unthinkable breaches, with no end in sight.

As classical Orthodox theology and traditional Torah attitudes play an increasingly lesser role in the brains behind Open Orthodoxy, an informal rebranding of sorts has occurred; it is something that the Conservative movement tried to do but failed, and Open Orthodoxy is now giving it another shot.

This something is called “Halachic Judaism,” meaning that one claims to be fully committed to halachic observance, distinguishing oneself from movements that have abandoned halacha and have thus forfeited their Jewish gravitas in the eyes of those who claim fealty to Torah tradition, yet one is not Orthodox in the normative sense. By laying claim to the mantle of halachic Judaism, one can anchor oneself to the perceived rock of legitimacy, while at the same time thereby free oneself to depart from Torah tradition and values in varied and profound ways.

My article, “Open Orthodoxy and the Rebirth of the Conservative Movement” (http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2014/07/27/open-orthodoxy-and-the-rebirth-of-the-conservative-movement/), examines the seismic challenges to normative Orthodoxy that have been posed by Open Orthodoxy; the second half of that article features chilling examples of these challenges, such as Open Orthodox leadership and field rabbis engaging in unprecedented breaches in the areas of interfaith endeavors, as well as reforming liturgy and synagogue practices, and harboring and defending heretical views in countless areas of Jewish thought.

It is not our goal to malign others; rather, by taking a hard look at the theology and trajectory of Open Orthodoxy, it is our hope that those who yield power within the movement will do what is necessary to rein in its outliers and steer the movement to the path of normative Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Gordimer is a kashrus professional, a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, and a member of the New York Bar. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

1. Readers are advised to see http://www.yucommentator.org/2013/12/open-orthodoxy-a-response-to-rabbi-shmuly-yanklowitz/ and to open the links for extensive elaboration and citations.

2. http://www.csfanyc.org/ai1ec_event/woman-suspected-biblical-sotah-rabbis-shabbat-learning-rabbi-ysoscher-katz/

3. Milin Havivin journal, vol. 1, p. 36

4. http://rabbidovlinzer.blogspot.com/2014/05/a-thought-on-parasha_23.html

5. Linzer takes a similar approach to the Akeidah; see http://rabbidovlinzer.blogspot.com/2013_10_13_archive.html.

6. It is clear that the most basic of sources affirm the eternality of the mitzvah to obliterate Amalek, not only symbolically, but also physically. See Rambam Sefer Ha-Mitzvos m.a. 188, Hil. Melachim 5:5, Sefer Ha-Chinuch 604, et al. Furthermore, the mitzvah to remember that which Amalek did to us includes the perpetual arousal of enmity against Amalek and, according to the Rambam, serves as a preparation for the mitzvah to obliterate Amalek; see Sefer Ha-Mitzvos m.a. 189. Linzer’s presentation, even absent its objectionability from a religious perspective, is blatantly contradicted by these basic, primary texts. Readers are directed to Sefer Hararei Kedem 1:185,186 for a beautiful analysis of the relationship of the mitzvos of Mechiyas and Zechiras Amalek and the eternal nature of the mitzvah of Mechiyas Amalek.

8. http://jstandard.com/content/item/all_in_the_family

9. Ibid. Greenberg’s highly controversial theology and Rackman’s untraditional approach to halacha precipitated the effective ouster of these two personalities from Yeshiva University and the Orthodox institutional rejection of their approaches, which are not considered acceptable approaches by mainstream Orthodoxy.

10. http://thetorah.com/ask-a-rabbi/experiencing-faith/

11. http://morethodoxy.org/2013/09/16/guest-post-by-rabbi-herzl-hefter-the-challenge-of-biblical-criticism-dogma-vs-faith/#comments

12. Please see http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2013/10/01/the-open-orthodox-race-to-the-edge-and-beyond-when-will-it-stop/ for discussion of this and a variety of articles by Open Orthodox rabbis that pose similar problems.

By Avrohom Gordimer

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